Dying Matters Awareness Week: The importance of talking to young people about death and dying

Thursday, 11 May 2017

India Hammond has been a Social Worker for seven years and joined the Family Support team at Prospect Hospice in March 2016.

India is experienced in working with children and families and working with stigmatized groups. She has delivered group and individual work with adults and children covering a range of issues, such as mental health, anxiety and depression. India now supports families who are living with serious illnesses to prepare for what is to come.

Many people want to protect children and young people from what they see to be the harsh realities of death and dying. From research, practice experience and talking to children and adults who have been bereaved as children, we know how important it is for children to have an understanding of what is happening to their loved one and to be involved in the journey, including being given the chance to say goodbye, where possible, when someone close to them is going to die.

Death is still something we find really difficult to talk about as adults. Our society norm is that discussing death and dying is morbid and unfavourable. Schools give children education around puberty, sex, relationships and living a healthy lifestyle in order to ensure they are able to make healthy choices in their lives, but little or no discussion about bereavement and loss takes place as part of the curriculum. We all experience loss throughout our lives and how we are supported to manage this can have a huge impact on our psychological wellbeing and how we manage future losses.

It is natural for parents/carers to want to protect their children by not telling them things that will upset them. It also needs to be acknowledged how difficult it is for parents to talk to children when they are feeling the pain of the loss themselves. We know from talking to children that hearing whispers behind closed doors, experiencing the adults around them acting differently and gaining small snippets of information can be more unsettling than hearing the truth, and that children may then make up their own story about what is happening, which can be more frightening than the truth.

When providing support to a family, children can often be overlooked, especially in adult focused services. People often think that children don’t know what’s happening because they haven’t been told or that the news has not affected them because they haven’t talked about it or shown any change in behaviour. What we know is that children often pick up on the feelings of others and are aware of what is happening but do not have the full picture, so have a confused view of what is going on, which again can breed fear.

As a hospice, I believe it is part of our job to open up death as a subject and inform and empower people to plan as much as they possibly can for what is to come. This support extends to all members of the dying person’s network and very much includes children as part of this. As a team we work with and feel passionate about supporting parents to talk to their children about what is happening. I feel very strongly that parents/carers should be the ones to talk to their children about the situation because they know them best, and that our biggest role is to support them in doing this – only in a handful of situations will we need to be directly involved in talking to children.

I have heard a consistent message from the children, young people and adults have been bereaved – that they have really valued honesty, being listened to and having the chance to make decisions and be involved in what is happening. They have had difficulties when things have been hidden and not talked about. One of the saddest things I have heard about is children not being given the opportunity to say goodbye, even though there should have been the chance to.

In short, we cannot fix what is happening, but we can encourage the people we work with to talk to children, to listen to what they have to say and to foster an atmosphere of honesty and openness in which children and young people have as good an understanding about what is happening for where they are developmentally in order to increase the wellbeing and positive outcomes for children and young people who have been bereaved.

Supporting children and families when someone is dying

Yesterday, our Family Support Team ran a training course for health professionals, offering advice and the opportunity to share experiences on how to support children and families when someone is dying. The session also featured a talk from Rosie Mathers from Child Bereavement UK.

The topics covered included: preparing children for an unexpected death, supporting parents to prepare and support children, religion and culture, grief and its manifestations, models of effective working with children, funerals and cremations, and self-care.

“I found the whole day beneficial. It has improved my understanding and increased my confidence. I now feel more able to support families and children. It has reinforced the value of laying down memories.” – course attendee

If you’re interested in find out more about our Family Support services, please get in touch by calling 01793 813355 or emailing info@prospect-hospice.net.